A local councillor has voiced “serious concerns” in relation to the planning process in the new Newry Mourne and Down Council.
Councillor Terry Hearty said he and other councillors had received numerous calls from constituents who could either not get through to Planning Service or who were not having their calls and emails returned.
“This is a very serious issue and the Planning Service really need to get their act together,” he said.
“It has become apparent that up to five members of staff have been off long term at the same time, either through illness or maternity leave, and nobody has been brought in to ensure that the department keeps moving smoothly.
“While an unexpected illness may be one thing, people certainly give plenty of notice before going on maternity leave.
“This would be bad enough if we were just dealing with the usual volume of planning applications but there is already a significant backlog cases to get through from the old council.”
He said it was not just members of the public who were having trouble getting in contact with Planning.
“Even councillors, MLAs and MPs have had difficulty making contact with members of the Planning Service,” he said.
Councillor Hearty expressed his concerns to the Head of the Planning Department at a meeting last week.
“I said first and foremost that as the head of the department the buck stopped with him and that it was his duty to ensure that everything in that department was running smoothly,” he said.
“We stressed that a time scale must be set for staff being replaced, made it clear that emails and calls needed to be returned properly and dealt with properly and said we would be monitoring the situation on a monthly basis.
“As well as the staffing issue there were also a number of more general concerns we had with how the service was being run.
“There were a number of serious blunders made in applications, which we pointed out. We also reminded them that the whole point of bringing planning under the control of the new councils was to develop a better, more accessible, more transparent system.
“We want to see a process whereby an applicant, agent and planner could come into the council, sit down, work out the issues and come to a conclusion a lot more quickly and with a lot less hassle.
“The days of applications taking six to 12 months should be gone. Once the new system gets up on its feet and the backlog is dealt with we want to see a turn around for applications of 12 weeks.
“At the end of the day planners are employees of NMD District Council and are answerable to the elected members and ratepayers of the district.
“There is a duty on us as elected representative to see that they do the job that they are employed to do.”
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